EYES OVER THE PACIFIC

A ‘morally conflicted’ spying operation on Pacific nations sees Australia and New Zealand running a covert interception and surveillance program against our Pacific island friends. 

NICKY HAGER
28 FEBRUARY 2022

NZDF helicopters flying above a neighbouring Pacific island nation, are often providing aid, emergency relief, and military training and support. These humanitarian and support operations sometimes also include undeclared intelligence collecting against the Pacific nation hosts. (Photo: NZ Ministry of Defence)

A spying network of satellite surveillance hubs and on-the-ground listening stations is being used by Australia and New Zealand to collect intelligence on the nations of the South Pacific.

Australia and New Zealand gather secret communications information from the Pacific region as part of the Five Eyes/UKUSA intelligence alliance and feed it into the vast worldwide surveillance network run by the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA).

Confidential government email, internet, and phone communications are collected and secret military networks are intercepted. All of this information provides the Five Eyes alliance with powerful tools to exploit and influence events and actions in South Pacific nations. 

The East Timor spying scandal, the cynical story of Australia eavesdropping on its tiny, friendly neighbour during crucial oil and gas negotiations in 2004, is but the tip of an iceberg. 

The Australian and New Zealand governments spy continuously on all their neighbours in the South Pacific. This dirty secret is rarely if ever debated in parliament or mentioned by the news media. The top secret details are usually only known to the military and intelligence officers involved.

Our governments do not monitor the South Pacific countries because they may pose any threat. The spying operations are a long-term and undisclosed price of membership of the US-led UKUSA alliance, better known as ‘Five Eyes’, is a five-nation intelligence alliance made up of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It includes Australia and New Zealand’s largest intelligence agencies: the Australian Signals Directorate and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). 

The Australian government declares “special and close relationships [with] our Pacific family”. The New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has gone further and called for a new foreign policy based on “the values we share as people of the Pacific”. But none of this changes the daily reality that the New Zealand and Australian agencies betray these countries by spying on them for the US and other Five Eyes intelligence agencies.

Declassified Australia sought responses to the matters raised in this story. A NZ Defence Force spokeperson did not respond to specific questions, but said “The NZDF conducts a range of information gathering and surveillance operations in support of the Government’s national security and intelligence priorities. These are carried out by a number of NZDF capabilities…. Information gathering and surveillance operations focus on understanding the range of threats to the South Pacific such as climate change, illegal fishing, humanitarian and disaster relief, wider resource competition, transnational crime, and search and rescue.” The Australian Defence Force did not respond to a request for comment.

A New Zealand military intelligence officer spoke to Declassified Australia, on the condition of anonymity, about his views on the extensive spying on Pacific nations that he has helped undertake.

He said he felt increasingly “morally conflicted” about the work he was being ordered to do in his role with the New Zealand Defence Force.

The officer’s work is conducted on a top secret computer system called JISS (Joint Intelligence Support System), the same name as Australia’s own top secret system. “We call it ‘Highside’, that’s the common name for it”. Many of the two countries’ intelligence operations are coordinated and the intelligence shared. 

New Zealand intelligence officers, along with their Australian counterparts, are conducting intensive surveillance operations spying on the secret electronic communications systems of friendly Pacific Island nations. (Photo: New Zealand Defence Force)

He said Australia and New Zealand are allocated sections of the globe to monitor for Five Eyes. The intensive surveillance of neighbouring friendly countries is the result.  

He said New Zealand’s “remit” is the South-West Pacific: “Bougainville is us. Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are us…. and we extend all the way to Samoa and Tonga,” and also French Polynesia.  

Meanwhile Australia’s coverage starts from PNG, which “mostly belongs” to Australia. “Then you go further up South East Asia and that’s all Australia’s ‘Area of Operations’.” 

When asked what the specific targets of the New Zealand spying operations were, he stated, “Military and government.”

The surveillance includes “COMINT [communications intelligence] operators on navy ships, locked away in a two-man room just behind the bridge”. They eavesdrop on South Pacific countries during regular port calls.

The officer described how all military staff on aid, disaster relief and training deployments are also sent with “intelligence collection tasks”. They are debriefed by intelligence officers on their return “to find out what they’d learned and what we could turn into intelligence”. 

“They told us it was for humanitarian aid missions. But why do we need to know how many weapons they have, and what are the routine guard patrols, and how high are the fences?” This intelligence collection activity described by the contact also includes “Tonga, Tuvalu, Niue, not the Cook Islands. Fiji – Fiji they’re always very interested in.”

For this military intelligence officer, the act of spying on his nation’s Pacific friends, is a betrayal of the military’s purpose. “I joined the NZDF to help people, and that’s what I was told.” But he says his superiors told him the spying was “for the greater good”. 

“Now, I hate that statement.”

The trove of intelligence documents publicly released by US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 confirm the New Zealand and Australian surveillance zones. 

An 18 December 2003 document by the NSA’s “Second Party Affairs Office”, profiling New Zealand’s electronic intelligence agency, states “GCSB’s mission focuses to a large degree on targets in its home region, namely the South Pacific.” A June 2009 NSA document described GCSB’s “Continued effort against the South Pacific region” which entailed “close partnering and engagement with DSD”, the sister Australian signals intelligence agency, Defence Signals Directorate (now retitled ASD, the Australian Signals Directorate). 

New Zealand’s Waihopai satellite interception station (codename Ironsand) is operated by the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) in the Waihopai Valley in New Zealand’s South Island. It continuously monitors internet and phone calls of the South Pacific nations as part of the UKUSA intelligence alliance. Photo shows five satellite surveillance dishes including the multi-beam Torus dish, capable of intercepting signals from 35 communications satellites simultaneously. (Photo: Nicky Hager, supplied)

A UK intelligence document of a few years later (approximately 2011) said “GCSB have given us access to their XKS [XKeyScore] deployments at Ironsand, a GCSB comsat [communications satellite] site which is rich in data for the South Pacific region”. Ironsand is the codename of New Zealand’s Waihopai satellite interception station. It said, “Specifically, we can access both strong selected data and full-take feed from this site.” An April 2013 report about the NSA’s relationship with New Zealand’ GCSB said “What Partner Provides to NSA: [intelligence collection on] South Pacific Island nations”.  

Likewise a 2013 document on “NSA relationship with Australia” made public in 2017 states: “NSA and DSD have agreed to specific divisions of effort, with the Australians solely responsible for reporting on multiple targets in the Pacific, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.” This refers to Australia’s traditional intelligence Area of Responsibility running from Papua New Guinea west into South East Asia, and bounded to the east by New Zealand’s “South West Pacific Area of Responsibility”.

An Australian Department of Defence powerpoint presentation released by Snowden illustrated this role. It revealed a DSD operation targeting the mobile phones of the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, the present and past vice president, the foreign affairs spokesman, the security minister, and the information minister.

Another NSA document reports DSD staff in an operation against Papua New Guinea. The 8 October 2003 report, authored by the NSA’s deputy special liaison officer to Canberra, said NSA was helping DSD cryptomathematicians and engineers to crack a satellite communication system, the “encrypted Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) network used by the Papua New Guinea Defence Force [PNGDF]”. Accessing this system would allow Australian intelligence agencies to access PNGDF communications sent and received using small satellite dishes in remote locations.

While they have these distinct geographical areas of responsibility, in practice New Zealand intelligence staff often assist with Australia’s target countries and Australian staff assist with New Zealand’s. Another Snowden document from 2009 illustrates this. 

New Zealand intelligence report of July 2009 described changes in the Solomon Islands’ mobile phone networks and said New Zealand and Australian intelligence staff were working closely to provide as much information on the changes as possible. “A result of this collaboration has been the fine tuning of the CAPRICA collection,” it said. CAPRICA was the codeword for a covert GCSB listening post in New Zealand’s High Commission in Honiara targeting the Solomon Islands government’s confidential communications.

The 2009 GCSB report notes that New Zealand had arranged for “dedicated 1800MHz receivers to be deployed at the site” to capture mobile phone signals for Australia’s DSD. The operation is understood to have run during a period of civil unrest in Solomon Islands.

Australia hosts the US’s Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap (codename Rainfall) run by the CIA, NSA and Australia’s ASD, located just outside of Alice Springs in Australia’s central desert. Described as the most important US surveillance base in the world, the Pine Gap base most controversially provides detailed geolocation intelligence gained from mobile phones, internet and other signals, that enables the location of targets in battlefields worldwide for US military action, including lethal drone strikes. It also hosts the NSA’s XKeyScore surveillance facility used to monitor military, diplomatic, economic communications in countries ranging from the Pacific island nations, to Africa, through Afghanistan, Russia, China, and Korea. Photo shows 21 of the base’s 40 satellite dishes. (Photo: Felicity Ruby)

At the same time, the 2009 report notes, GCSB’s Computer Network Exploitation unit was “engaging in operations against Fijian networks”, noting that “GCSB’s major targets in the Government and [military] have kept a preference for Vodafone services.” The report said GCSB staff “assisted DSD’s Military Support Unit to provide a Target Systems Analysis on the Command, Control and Communications” of the Fiji government, military and police.

New Zealand likewise gives assistance for the DSD’s work on target countries. The 2009 GCSB report said a GCSB officer worked in the DSD Network Infrastructure Analysis section on “specific… tasks regarding Indonesian cellular telecommunications provider Telkomsel”.  

Shortly before Australia conducted its infamous spying on the fledgling East Timor government in 2004, a unit of New Zealand Army intelligence operators was also spying in the new country. This was first revealed in my book, Other Peoples Wars.

Using borrowed Australian equipment, the New Zealanders ran a small radio eavesdropping base called BCT, operating from November 2001 at the New Zealand Army’s Suai base. BCT, or Battalion CIS (Communication and Informal Systems) Team, was a cover name to disguise the intelligence gathering role.

The 2009 document also shows GCSB surveillance operations against mobile phone communications systems of Samoa, Nauru and Kiribati.

It should be noted that all of the operations described above are against friendly countries. Many are described officially as important partners. But all these relationships come second, and are undermined, because of an assumption of primary obligation to the Five Eyes alliance. The post-WWII intelligence alliance, between the US and UK, and three ex-British colonies, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is in effect a colonial, Caucasian, English-speaking alliance. 

In New Zealand, the dominance of this grouping has begun to be challenged. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced in a November 2021 speech that “our relationships across the Pacific need to be founded in openness, trust and goodwill…. Our engagement must be as partners.”  

In a December 2021 Four-Year Plan for Samoa, her department said the relationship with Samoa should be based on the Maori concept of “Tātou Tātou (All of us together)”, and “whanaungatanga and friendship, including honesty, trust, and respect…. We will listen…. we are in this together.”

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has announced “a new chapter in relations with our Pacific family. One based on respect, equality and openness. A relationship for its own sake, because it’s right. Because it’s who we are.” In the case of Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, it seems they genuinely believe this. 

With Morrison, it seems more likely that the goodwill is part of a geopolitical strategy that seeks closer relations for the purpose of countering Chinese influence in the region.

But, either way, eavesdropping on a country’s leaders and sharing the information with favoured foreign powers is incompatible with the relationships Mahuta and Morrison seek. It is the epitome of a colonial role. This contradiction in policy awaits to be resolved.

The current Five Eyes orientation is epitomised by the massive scale surveillance systems used to spy on their neighbours. The best known facilities targeting the Pacific region are the Australian satellite interception stations in Geraldton (codename Stellar) and Darwin (Shoal Bay), and the New Zealand Waihopai satellite interception station (codename Ironsand).

For 30 years they have intercepted the communications relayed by the growing number of communications satellites that serve the Asia-Pacific region. GCSB regularly intercepts the large Intelsat communication satellites that have provided the main communications link for many South Pacific nations. 

Snowden documents revealed that virtually all the intelligence collection and analysis equipment at these bases – such as the controversial XKeyScore system – are supplied by the NSA as part of a standardised world-wide surveillance operation. This writer has published a list of the Waihopai surveillance systems.

An extract from a Top Secret NSA map showing the Pacific Ocean and the XKeyScore surveillance facilities located in Australia and New Zealand and other nations. The surveillance facilities are located at New Zealand’s Waihopai satellite interception station (Ironsand), and in Australia at Pine Gap (Rainfall) near Alice Springs, the signals intelligence satellite stations outside Geraldton in Western Australia, at Shoal Bay near Darwin, and at the HMAS Harman listening post in Canberra. (Image: NSA, via Edward Snowden)

A leaked top secret document revealed the GCSB used these stations and XKeyScore to spy on email communications of ministerial and senior officials of the supposedly friendly Solomon Islands; and also of a leading Solomons anti-corruption campaigner. The document – targeting instructions for XKeyScore – lists the senior officials’ email addresses. They include the secretary of foreign affairs, the prime minister’s chief of staff, and the cabinet secretary. 

Australia utilises XKeyScore at its US-controlled satellite surveillance base at Pine Gap (codename Rainfall), the signals intelligence satellite stations outside Geraldton in Western Australia and at Shoal Bay near Darwin, and at the HMAS Harman listening post in Canberra.

Another tool made available by the NSA is the equally controversial PRISM system, which NSA used to access target people’s Gmail, Facebook and other messages. New Zealand and  Australian intelligence staff are allowed to send requests to NSA PRISM staff to access specified email and social media accounts. The NSA send computer files of the private communications back.

One PRISM target was a Fijian democracy campaigner living in New Zealand and later Australia. The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) decided, on flimsy grounds, that Tony Fullman, a long-time New Zealand Inland Revenue official, was part of a planned terrorist attack. There was no terrorist plot, but large quantities of his innocuous emails and Facebook messages were intercepted by the NSA and at allied facilities around the Pacific. They were later revealed among the Snowden documents. 

The other growth areas of NSA-led interception are undersea cable interception and operations where the intelligence agencies hack their way into the computers holding communications networks. The Snowden papers revealed both of these in operation in other parts of the world although there is little documentation of these so far from the South Pacific.

Why do countries like Australia and New Zealand do this to their Pacific neighbours? The answer is not that “everyone does it”, since none of the South Pacific countries mentioned in this article have such capabilities themselves. 

A current answer might be it’s for monitoring Chinese interest in the region. During the Cold War, it was ostensibly to monitor the Russians, or the Vietnamese, or China, or even the French while they conducted nuclear bomb tests in the 1970s-1990s. But the real reason is that the activities are long-term duties in an old alliance, and would be happening whatever the official ‘enemy of the day’ was doing. 

Those duties of gathering information on political, economic, military and diplomatic developments about most nations on earth, provide the Five Eyes alliance with powerful inside information to exploit and influence events and actions across the world. 

The Five Eyes alliance creates morally inconsistent policies like the South Pacific spying. New Zealand and Australia can never have genuinely open and respectful relations with these nations while spying on them for foreign powers.


Nicky Hager is an investigative reporter and author of seven books. He has written widely on New Zealand and allied intelligence operations, including two books. His latest book, Hit & Run, on civilian casualties during an NZSAS raid in Afghanistan, led to a major government inquiry.